12 January 2009, 14:16

The story of one plunder

The story of one plunder

In 1922 the Soviet authorities launched a campaign to confiscate church valuables allegedly for the needs of starving compatriots. Our story is about how this unprecedented loot was prepared and carried out and what it was aimed at. Long before the confiscation — in 1918 — the newly-born Soviet state made an inventory of all church valuables.

In 1922 the Soviet authorities launched a campaign to confiscate church valuables allegedly for the needs of starving compatriots. Our story is about how this unprecedented loot was prepared and carried out and what it was aimed at.

Long before the confiscation — in 1918 — the newly-born Soviet state made an inventory of all church valuables. According to the government's decree, the museums, churches and monasteries were to submit to the authorities the lists of all gold and silver objects and precious stones they possessed. So by 1922 everything was ready for a large-scale plunder of the Church.

Central and local archives in Russia have preserved a lot of documents concerning the motives, mechanism and scale of the monstrous action. One of the documents is a secret letter of instruction which was written by the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin to members of the Politbureau of the Russian Communist party. The letter was made public only recently. It reads as follows:

“We must spare no effort to carry out confiscation of church valuables in a very decisive and quickest way possible so that to set up a fund of several hundred million gold rubles (just recall the treasures of some monasteries…) No government work or economic activities will be possible without a fund of this kind. We must take control of this fund whatever the cost. And in view of the current famine we can do it successfully. Confiscation of valuables, especially from the richest monasteries and churches, must be carried out with ruthless determination and as quickly as possible. The more representatives of the clergy and business tycoons will be shot over the issue, the better. It is now that we must teach them a lesson they will remember for years.”

Bolsheviks implemented the plan under the pretext of fighting the unprecedented famine which had struck Russia. Some historians believe that the famine was provoked by the Bolsheviks. Millions of people were dying. And as always at times of human suffering the Orthodox Church was doing all it can to help the starving people. Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Tikhon called on foreign countries to help a country which had always helped others, a country which had fed so many and was now dying from hunger.

With the permission of the Bolshevik government the Russian Orthodox Church began to collect donations to relieve famine. In early February 1922 Patriarch Tikhon called on the nation again to render help to the starving people. In his message the Patriarch announced the possibility to use valuables which were in possession of many churches but were not used in services. A bit later he confirmed the permission.

Help of this kind, however, prompted political fears among the Bolsheviks who were afraid of the Church getting stronger. On February 23rd, 1922 they issued a decree ordering confiscation of all church treasures including sacred objects. This was an unprecedented sacrilege. Half a month later the decree was followed by Lenin’s letter of instruction. Under the pretext of fighting famine Bolsheviks declared war on the Church.

The press was saturated with publications sharply criticizing the clergy. The government approved the rules and procedures for confiscating church valuables. A Commission in charge of confiscation church treasures set up an office on Lubyanka Square in the centre of Moscow. It comprised Bolsheviks who had broad experience both in confiscating treasures and in supervising executions by firing squads. Among those was Rozalia Zemlyachka [Rozalia Zalkind], a woman Bolshevik who had rich experience in supervising shootings of people in the Crimea.

The Commission established the order in which church valuables were confiscated and guaranteed protection with the help of Red Army soldiers carrying machine-guns, cavalry squadrons and workers’ militia. All the treasures confiscated were to put into wooden or metal boxes. The boxes were sealed and

Patriarch Tikhon

escorted by armed units were transported to a state storehouse.

Two weeks before the confiscation began almost all Moscow Communists were mobilized for agitation. The authorities needed people’s support to carry out the action. But they failed to win 100-percent support for the plan even among workers let alone other sections of the society.

Among most frequently voiced statements recorded by Bolshevik commissions are the following:

“If you want to save Russia, leave, for you can't feed it.”

“Can it be so that we will begin to remove church decorations which we took no part in putting up. Let them remain in their places.”

“…Let the Communists' wives work for the good of the starving!”

“Will the treasures confiscated reach the starving?”

The last question was exactly to the point. For as it turned out later the starving gained almost nothing from the action.

Some cried out the following:

“Communists are using the treasures as jewelry!”

“Let's stop turning a blind eye to the plundering of people's property, let them give an account of what they did with the Kremlin gold and other treasures they plundered from all offices and enterprises.”

“Churches are not for you, stop spilling out blood!”…

Bolsheviks were following closely the people's mood. Secret informers were permanently on duty during services in Moscow churches. On March 27th, 1922 one of them reported the following:

“…the people’s sentiment was changing. Most of those present belonged to intelligentsia, that is, people without definite occupation. Father Porfiry pronounced a sermon about the deliverance of Christianity and people from the Bolsheviks.”

The same informer found it necessary to report the moods in other Moscow church which was situated in the centre in Tverskaya Street:

“…among 200 praying … there was talk about collecting signatures in support of church interior being left intact. There was no possibility to identify those talking.”

The next information came from the Moscow Regional Political Department and described the moods of Moscow residents on the eve of the confiscation:

“…the Bauman district. A meeting took place in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul on Preobrazhenskaya Square at 7.30 p.m. 250 people were present. The meeting adopted a resolution to oppose giving the church treasures to help the starving… Those who spoke in favor of confiscation were asked to leave.”

"The Sokolniki district. April 1st. A meeting took place at the Mak Guil iron foundry yesterday. It adopted a resolution to confiscate gold from the Communists, their wives, traders and then from churches… The meeting decided to have a 10-day holiday during Easter.”

“At an evening service in the Ascension Church yesterday priest Kedrov delivered a sermon about the importance of religion and the viewpoint of the scientists. He said he hated the opponents of Christianity. About 1000 people present were listening attentively and sympathetically but in a reserved manner.”

For fear of disturbances Bolsheviks summoned church rectors to district commissions to give written undertakings to assume responsibility for any disturbances on the part of parishioners during the confiscation. Such documents read as follows:

“…assume responsibility for any disturbances which may take place during confiscation of our church's valuables.”

Tension in Moscow mounted. Preserved to this day are several top secret reports sent by the Chairman of the Regional Confiscation Commission to the superiors. One of the reports read:

“The crowd near the Church of St. Basil of Caesarea grew to 1500 people. There were attempts to throw stones and there was a danger of blood-letting. As a stone hit a cavalryman the latter raised his sword but was held back in time.”

Confiscation of valuables from the Church of Epiphany in Dorogomilovo nearly escaped bloodshed. The Commission report says:

“…a crowd of 300 gathered at the church first and began to throw stones at the security guards: security was tightened but the crowd drove the guards to the church steps and several people scaled to the belfry and began to ring the bells thereby causing the crowd to grow gradually to 1000. Bolsheviks sent foot and mounted troops to disperse the crowd. Two people were beaten and about 10 received minor injuries.”

The Orthodox Christians tried to save their shrines from desecration, but their weak efforts were quickly crushed by the overwhelming power of their Bolshevik enemies. The least envious was the lot of the Orthodox priests who realized all too well the blasphemous nature of what was going on and their responsibility for the fate of their parishioners and churches… Father Ioann thus castigated the plunderers during a sermon held at the St. Nicholas church in downtown Moscow:

“Our enemies stormed into our church, took our sacred valuables, with their dirty hands, they desecrated our icons, our holy crosses, communion-cups and everything they robbed us off will be used not to feed the starving but to make bracelets and cigarette-holders for our enemies…”

Despite the believers' protests, the stream of plundered church riches was widening every day. Here is an excerpt from a report made by the official looters about what had been taken out in a matter of just two days…

“On March 31st we confiscated almost one and a half tons of church silver and just under a ton on April 1st. We also arrested 27 priests and ordinary believers…”

We must add to this that, besides silver items, each church boasted a large stock of gold plate and precious stones that adorned the icon frames, church ware, Bible settings and crucifixes. Much of these things were mercilessly looted by the Bolsheviks. Much but, fortunately, not all, because some of these sacred valuables were saved thanks to the selfless effort bent by some of Moscow's more daring museum workers. Insisting on these relics’ historical and artistic value, they made them part of their museums’ collections or had them temporarily preserved in churches. Quite naturally, such behavior did not sit well with the plunderers one of who said in his report the following:

“I have every reason to state that the art experts have shown criminal indifference towards the starving people. To them, a piece of metal, even cast in the 17th century, means more than human life… We have more than enough of this 17th-century artwork in Russia and one can only wonder why the museums need so many old things, especially now…”

The author then demanded “…to requisition all the church valuables they now have in the Novodevichy Convent…”

Nearly 300 kilograms of silver, 42 cut and 97 uncut diamonds, 61 sapphires and other valuables were confiscated from the Novodevichy Convent…

In their unholy zeal, the Bolsheviks didn’t spare even the Moscow Kremlin, the cradle of the Russian statehood and the keeper of this country's spiritual and historical riches.

Allegations by the Soviet-era propaganda that only artistically and historically unimportant church plate was confiscated holds no water because we know that absolutely unique pieces of 18th, 19th and 20th century religious art were recycled into scrap metal. The list of priceless valuables looted from the Russian Orthodox Church goes on forever…

And how did the Soviet powers-that-be benefit considerably from this unprecedented confiscation?

Not really much, though, only 2 million gold rubles. Well, these proceeds did help to resolve some of this country's problems, but it was certainly not enough to put the war-ravaged economy back on track again. They say that part of the looted church gold was used to buy bread for the starving, but many historians reserve their doubts.

Politically, however, the great church plunder was a success, because under the disguise of propaganda talk that the confiscations were needed to feed the starving, the authorities unleashed a campaign of wholesale terror against the church and the clergy. Hundreds of thousands of priests, monks and ordinary Orthodox believers were arrested and executed during the purge. The anti-religious campaign precipitated mass closures and razzings of churches and monasteries and the destruction of their property.

All this is horrible as it is, but what is even more terrible, the Bolsheviks laid waste the souls and millions of people and spawned masses of distraught young people who had faith in no one. And, finally, they alienated the people from the state and this is a very dangerous thing in any country.

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